A significant part of life is defining who one is and discovering one’s identity. Identity is often explored through the questioning of the biological or philosophical consciousness of society. Discovering the complexities of one’s identity is, therefore, also apart of this task. This semester in African Diaspora and the World the complexity of identity was discussed through multiple lenses that explore the identity of people of the African Diaspora. Through several texts and critical essays in the readings for African Diaspora and the World, the concepts of race, gender, and intersectionality are explored to examine the complexity of identity.
In exploring the text of “Racial Formations” by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the concept of race is developed as a dimension of the complex identity of people from the African Diaspora. To prove race as a dimension of the complex identity of people from the African Diaspora, the writers used the legal case of Susie Guillory Phipps who sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records in order to change her racial classification to white. This case essentially quantified racial identity and made the assigning individuals to specific racial groupings legal. This quantification of racial identity proses an issue as the interpretations of racial identity perpetuated a wide range of racial differences and political contention.
Race was seen a biological concept, and therefore, an attempt to suggest that the issues that involve racial views lie in inherited characteristics such as skin color. What Michael Omi and Howard Winant try to explain about race is that it is actually a socio-historical concept and not a biological one. “Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded. Racial meanings have varied tremendously over time and between different societies.” (85). Terms such as “Hypo-descent” perpetuate the values of race as a biological concept as it was developed by the United States in order to fulfill its racist agenda.
Furthermore, as it relates to the complex identity of people from the African Diaspora, there is a wide array of definitions as to what it means to be “black”. Omi and Winant argue that race is more than a concept of skin color. Race has many dimensions and these dimensions are present in the identities of people of the African Diaspora. “The effort must be made to understand race as an unstable and “decentered” complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.” (91). The extension of racial meanings is an ideological and historical process that people of the African Diaspora must acknowledge when considering their individual identities.
Another aspect that applies to the complex identity of people of the African Diaspora is gender. In Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s “Gender as an Analytic Category”, she uses concepts within the feminist theory to explain the effects of gender as a social construction. Sheftall begins by explaining the ways in which what is means to be a female in the world is impacted by variables such as race, class, and sexual orientation and how these variables, as intersecting oppressions, effect women’s experiences as women from those of men (100). She notes the fact that women have historically been “invisible, devalued, and marginalized” and gives credit to the “unexamined assumptions about women and women’s place in society and silence about the reality of gender-defining institutions” (101).
Through these assumptions and impact of gender-defining institutions, Sheftall explains that cultural and societal beliefs about what it means to be masculine or feminine are altered from the biological conceptions of what it means to be male or female. Sheftall continues to explain the consequences of gender as a social construction by posing questions that deal with gender socialization and asymmetry. For example, she inquires about the origin of gender inequality and how female subordination came into existence. She uses other examples within the text to question the impact of world religions on gender systems and how social control on female sexuality contribute to gender hierarchies.
The complexity of identity can be explored when recognizing the social construction of gender and how these conceptions impact the experiences and struggles that women face. Sheftall concludes through a call-to-action for removing ourselves from the “monolithic conception of woman” and to theorize about gender through a global lens. Furthermore, the concept of gender is just a layer of one’s complex identity.
The final concept that can be examined as apart of an individual’s complex identity is the theory of intersectionality. In the African Diaspora and the World reading, “Shifting Contexts: Lessons from Integrating Black, Gender, and African Diaspora Studies” by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, she examines the intersection of race and gender as it relates to people of the African Diaspora. She started by explaining the initiative and significance of recognizing these intersections within the African Diaspora studies. The African Diaspora, as stated, was defined as “the voluntary and forced dispersal of Africans at different periods in history and in several directions; the emergence of a cultural identity abroad without losing the African base, either spiritually or physically; the psychological return to the homeland, Africa.” (75). The African Diaspora as an interdisciplinary study had historically been “focused on men or insensitive to the intersection, of race, class, and gender in the live of African peoples.” She notes that acknowledging the experiences of African women, within the various cultural and historical contexts, that it allows African Diasporic studies to become more inclusive.
“This new feminist scholarship by African women, as well as women of African descent in Europe and the Americas, is critically important for understanding the experiences of women in different regions of the world and in helping to dismantle the hegemony of Western (white) feminist analytical frameworks.” (80). Sheftall places importance on understanding the intersection of the identity of women of the African Diaspora. An individual’s complex identity should be analyzed through the lenses of race, gender, and sexuality and have a global approach attached.
All in all, intersectionality is a concept that describes the struggles of many African Americans in both today’s society as well as the past day. Throughout the span of this semester we have explored several different topics that have helped us reconstruct our knowledge of a number of aspects in society. Through studying the African Diaspora and finding out the history from which most of our teachings derived it is possible for one to make meaningful conclusions about race, gender, identity, and other subsections within intersectionality. In addition studying these texts made it much easier to accurately define and categorize the identities of each member of the African Diaspora.
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